Friday, September 11, 2009

Waiting for Blonde

A long-time New Yorker like John Cale surely couldn't resist the lure of adding a "September 11 song" to his catalog, right? I mean, Leonard Cohen gave in, Bruce Springsteen went concept album, and Neil Young and Paul McCartney managed to plumb some career-low depths in their attempts. Even Lou wrote poetry to grapple with the event.

No, dear reader, he couldn't resist. But he did exercise an astonishing amount of restraint back in 2003, working on the 5 Tracks EP and really stretching the boundaries of his songwriting. It was a very fertile time in his later career, and "Waiting for Blonde" benefits a great deal from the amount of experience, closely observed human interaction, and narrative trickiness poured into it.

It opens with transit station samples, followed by a laggy beat and a stop-and-go baseline that starts out faint and pensive. Viola creates a haze made thicker by various electronic trickery. Cale makes a statement of purpose: he's giving us a preview of a play he intends to write, about a subway car hawker. With that single line of setup, he switches into the hawker's voice.

The hawker speaks in repetitive phrases: "I am a very good businessman. Good morning ladies and gentlemen," selling batteries (including the MIGHTY C BATTERY) and taunting (?) the people on the train who are "waiting for Blonde: You are New Yorkers. You are the very best." The title is never explained, and doesn't need to be.

Halfway through the song, after the first chorus, it hits the bridge: everything stops, turns; the tension ratchets up. "Your skin is crawling; your tongue is in a trance. Remember you are New Yorkers, and this is your last chance. Good morning ladies and gentlemen - good morning! Step away from the closing doors." The finality with which that familiar exhortation is delivered is really striking.

For the final section of the song, Cale gives a lesson in NYC subway geography (I'm still a little unclear which station the song is supposed to be set in.) It's obvious that he's going for the WTC, though: familiar names pop up "the Z train and Port Authority; the PATH train" -- and here he slips the crumbling-civilization dagger in -- "and all stations to Atlantis."

An ambiguous, haunting track that actually succeeds in its stated aim as theatre, and addresses a catastrophe and tragedy without being trite or stupid. Not bad, Mr. Cale. Not bad at all.

Now, if only I could figure out the scat backing vocals at the end. "The spider sat beside her to the left"...?